10 Chapters
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Violence and Religion in Texas

Byrd M. Williams IV University of North Texas Press ePub

Byrd IV, Christmas and birthday 1960

Growing up in Texas

Baudelaire is credited with coining the term modernity (modernité) to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience.

Texas is not unique to America in its unencumbered love of firearms and openly devotional mindset. The best I can tell, these cultural attributes are salient to any of the Southern states, at least in proportion to the Northeast and Northwest. The Byrd Williams archive is rife with photographic evidence of violence and religion throughout. I would be remiss not to address this aspect of our heritage.

Cultures evolve. My family was never very religious but we were armed to the teeth. I always loved cameras, but for the life of me I cannot remember why we had so many guns. I somehow lost that meme, maybe because our societal norms are shifting. My immediate ancestors were not particularly racist, violent, gender biased, homophobic, or fundamentalist about any ideology. By hobby and trade we were “observers” but close examination of the visual and written evidence indicates complicity in many of the above areas. I am chagrined about this. One could pass the buck and say, “Oh well, it was just the way it was in those days,” but my life of anthropological scrutiny prevents this. Photographing people carries with it a hint of exploitation. I offer myself for the same.

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Studio

Byrd M. Williams IV University of North Texas Press ePub

Dad's Westcliff Studio

DAD WORKED HIMSELF TO DEATH for 50 years in a Mom and Pop style photographic business. I was there for 30 of them. Our family was of the secular variety whose devotional piety was not directed toward any religious enterprise but rather to that postwar American work ethic that drove the entrepreneurial mental prison of the 1950s. We were in the evidence business. A wedding happened and for $59.95 you could buy the artifact proof from us. Indeed, participant testimony was piffle compared to full-color documents filled with aunts and uncles and in-laws and drunks. Same with the portrayal of family happiness. Stiff topographical maps of faces with awkward smirks in bad suits that displayed, however sterile, the family unit intact. One wonders what posterity will think of our culture 500 years hence. All 300,000,000 of us in the same J. C. Penney's uniform, the same sneer, the same phony grouping of eternal oneness. It may be a good thing that the Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans had no Olin Mills. These records of our appearance, our existence, even our sentience will become our headstones.

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People

Byrd M. Williams IV University of North Texas Press ePub

Title page to Byrd III photograph album

THE FACES THAT INHABIT ONE'S LIFE are also connected to a mutually shared experience, whether it is an insider that occupies the fabric of your reality or a transient in and out of your orbit like a waiter in a restaurant, never to be seen again.

All of the Byrd Williamses made portraits for a variety of reasons. Sometimes as a hired hand for vanity, sometimes for editorial information, but much of the time it was for nothing. For lack of a better term, it was for art.

Shortly after arriving in Gainesville, Texas, my great-grandfather set about photographing people he encountered. An untrained but enthusiastic amateur, his work included carefully executed records of local acquaintances, an endeavor common to the new “roll film” era photography was entering.

By 1885, Granddad had taken up the hobby and was encouraged by earning extra money shooting portraits of locals across the range of hamlets between Fort Worth and the Red River. Small communities within wagon distance of Gainesville that featured churches and the occasional town square such as Myra, Era, Muenster, Henrietta, Sanger, Bowie, and Whitesboro. Wherever he lived, my grandfather continued making two-dimensional replicas of people's faces for the rest of his life.

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Night

Byrd M. Williams IV University of North Texas Press ePub

WHEN I WAS A KID MY FRIENDS AND I WOULD HANG OUT on the street corners at night under the mercury vapor lights that provided a 200-foot circle of pasty illumination. If one of us had a paper route with the Fort Worth Press or Star Telegram, we were allowed to remain until sunrise when the newspapers had to be rolled and thrown to neighborhood subscribers. Our parents were more than happy to encourage our entrepreneurial spirit, inadvertently handing us the key to the city…at night.

For a twelve-year-old, it was one's first taste of unencumbered freedom. The summer sidewalks were still warm but the breeze was cool and no authority what-so-ever was in sight. Of course there was a bit of early ‘60s mischief, but for the most part, it was just fun being there.

I continued to roam the city at night for the rest of my life, as did my Dad. We never talked about the source of our fascination with gloomy urban spaces, but I know mine and can guess his. Cities are lit like movie sets.

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Photographs

Byrd M. Williams IV University of North Texas Press ePub

WALKING INTO THIS ARCHIVE is to walk among the dead. Many I knew and many I am just getting to know through their words and faces, but now I am one of the last remaining survivors in this Borgesian library of images. It was fiendishly comical when I noticed the irony of what has taken place: Middle class transubstantiation. Instead of bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, four generations of my forebears’ bodies and blood have turned into paper and silver.

For me, photography is about death. It didn't used to be, but I'm sixty-four and everybody in the room is dead and I can't remember why I was so obsessed with saving their lives in two-dimensional facsimile. Perhaps all these years I have been trying to nail down what Ian McEwen refers to as our brief spark of consciousness.

It was never about the money; I could have done better mowing lawns. There was always this urgency about it: save all historic buildings, remember all the faces, stand on all the street corners, save everybody's toilet, share my experience with posterity, I was alive goddammit.

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